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Romance scams

Do you have suspicions that a friend or family member is involved in a romance scam? Do you ever wonder why people become involved in romance scams?

Unfortunately, it’s often vulnerable and lonely people in our community that fall for these scams. It’s also unlikely that people will be able to self-identify that they have become a victim.

Scams are on the increase

Even with all the awareness in the community, romance scams are still a growing issue.

According to Scamwatch, in 2020 there were 3,708 reported romance scam cases which cost Australians nearly $39 million. While this figure may seem high, this is just what gets reported; many victims never make a report due to fear or embarrassment.

Grace shares her story*

At 67 years old, Grace*, who had been widowed for five years, stayed connected with her family and friends through Facebook as all her children lived interstate. She found she could join groups and play games via the social media channel. One day during a game of Words with Friends, her opponent sent her a message asking how her day was. This interaction was the start of what Grace thought was an exciting new romance.

“It started very innocently,” Grace advised from her New South Wales home. “On the first day, we just chatted and said ‘hi, how was your day’ and arranged a time to play again the next day. Over the next few games, he told me his name was Malcom James, he was in the US military, and was based in Iraq. He also said he felt quite lonely and was looking for some company”.

Over the next 18 months, the person claiming to be Malcom James drew Grace into what she thought was a loving relationship. It was in fact a scam leading to a series of escalating requests for money. This resulted in Grace’s life falling apart; she lost her entire life savings and went into significant debt.

Grace explains, “In those first few weeks he was so lovely, I could tell he really cared about me and we had a genuine connection. We would speak every day. He sent me poems, we shared pictures and he told me I was his ‘angel sent from heaven’. I just fell completely in love with him and we were soon discussing how we would build a life together once he was out of the army. He said he was happy to move to Australia as he was a trained accountant, so he would easily get a job here.”

Grace continues, “When he first requested money, we were looking to book flights to Australia so he could visit me. He said his accounts and credit cards had been shut down due to a computer issue, so he needed me to send a wire transfer to Nigeria where he had been transferred. He was meant to be getting a big payout from the army due to an injury, so I knew he was good for it. I just wanted to do anything I could to get him here. It never occurred to me that this could be a scam. We were in love so it all made sense at the time."

One request for money turned into more than twenty, as Malcom encountered issue after issue trying to get to Australia. These included medical emergencies affecting him and his family, and legal battles with the police.

Eighteen months into the relationship, Grace had sent a total of $374,000 to Malcom, and taken out a $35,000 loan against her house. The truth was finally revealed when Malcom mistakenly sent Grace an email intended for someone else called Sandra. The email contained almost six months’ worth of the exact same messages that Grace had received, from the same email address and name.

Grace shares, “I was in shock, I couldn’t believe it! When I questioned him on it, he sent me a message saying, “Looks like the game is up!”. I am heartbroken, in debt and have no savings left. This scam has ruined my life, I just want to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.

Typical profile and actions of a Scammer:

Signs that someone is communicating with a scammer may include:

  • claiming to be a US citizen
  • claiming to work for the government, army or an aid organisation
  • claiming to work overseas
  • professing to fall in love almost immediately
  • poor grammar and spelling for someone who claims to be a native English speaker
  • asking to communicate by email rather than through a dating or social media site.

How you can help

Do you know what to do if you think someone you know is involved in a romance scam? A combination of these red flags could indicate a friend or relative is involved in a scam:

  • the relationship started online
  • they have never met the person face to face
  • they have not seen the person via Skype, webcam or video chat
  • if they have spoken on the phone, it’s rare and the calls are brief
  • they fall in love within weeks, if not days of talking
  • your friend is secretive of the relationship and doesn’t want to discuss it (they may have been coached not to share too many details)
  • there has been a request for money.

Next steps

How can you help a friend or relative realise they're involved in a romance scam?

  • Speak with your friend or family member to share your concerns.
  • Go through the Scamwatch website together to point out the similarities between their relationship and the case studies.
  • Google the scammer’s name to see if they’ve been reported on any scam sites.
  • Do a reverse Google image search of any photos they’ve sent, as they may already be on scam reporting sites.
  • If your friend or relative has already sent money, they should report it to the police, ReportCyber and their bank.

You can find more information on Scamwatch

Need assistance?

It can be difficult to convince a friend or relative that they're involved in a scam. Engaging the help of others can help.

  • Get in touch with IDCare - Australia and New Zealand's counselling and support service to assist Australians impacted by scams, identify theft and cyber-crimes. They can provide support in convincing the victim that they're involved in a romance scam. IDCare is a free, not-for-profit, service for all Australians.
  • Speak with the police about your concerns and see if they can assist with a welfare check or conversation.
  • Form a group intervention with other friends or family so that you can all share your concerns and suspicions together.

Helpful resources

How to use social media securely

Social media can provide others with access to your personal world. Make sure you're only sharing what you want to share.

How to keep your family safe online

The internet is full of information, but it can also be dangerous. Learn how to keep your family safe online.

How to keep your identity safe online

Your identity is your most valuable asset. Protect it. Your freedom depends on it.

How to identify spam and phishing messages

Be on the lookout for suspicious messages and avoid being a target of cyber-criminals.